Migraine headaches are unmistakable for most people and sometimes debilitating. Migraine headaches, unlike tension headaches, are neurovascular in nature, and aside from the actual, miserable headache, can cause a host of other symptoms, such as sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, exhaustion, visual disturbances, facial tingling and numbness and much more. Some people who get migraine headaches get a brief warning, called and aura, which may appear as seeing bright flashes of light, or developing tunnel vision. Others have no auras.
The headache itself usually begins on one side of the head, and is throbbing. Mine generally are felt behind and over one eye, and I can feel the veins in both temples bulging and throbbing. The pain may remain on one side, or spread to the entire head. Any sort of physical activity only makes matters worse. When you hear people speak of having had a migraine, it never sounds fun, and you may wonder if you are at risk of getting migraine headaches.
Roughly 3 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches, and of those, 75% are women. Children can get migraines, too, but in kids, both boys and girls are equally prone to getting them. That shifts at puberty, when most boys quit having them, while the predominance among women grows due to the hormones, estrogen and progesterone, so being a woman of childbearing age is a risk factor for migraines. Once I hit my 20’s, I had a migraine with every period, and many women have migraines linked to their menstrual cycles.
Migraines are also genetic, so if you have a parent, or parents, who have migraine headaches chances are good that you might develop migraine headaches, too. Most people who suffer from migraines are between the ages of 15 to 55, which goes hand in hand with the childbearing years. That means that if you are a 20 year old women with a family history of migraines, you have got a triple whammy of risk factors.
It has also been found that migraines are more common among people with depression, anxiety, IBS, epilepsy, and high blood pressure. These are not risk factors, in and of themselves, but there is a strong association between having migraine headaches and the listed conditions.
People who do suffer from migraines may find that they have certain triggers. For me, it was hormones and my menstrual cycle. Stress, allergies, certain foods such as cheeses or red wine, loud noises, or bright lights might trigger a migraine headache. Migraines can come infrequently, or happen often in certain individuals. For women who have migraines that are linked to hormones, menopause often brings blessed relief. For chronic migraine suffers, learning your triggers and how to avoid them may help, as can medication. Resting in a quiet, dark room often helps the migraine pass more quickly, but sometimes the after affects can continue you on for another day–the migraine hangover.
Are you at risk for migraines? It is certainly possible, especially if you are a woman with a family history. There is no way to know if you will have migraine headaches, and no way to prevent one if you have never had one, so time will tell. Knowing in advance what to expect may make a migraine less of a surprise, and only after having a few migraines is it possible to determine triggers and any needed treatment, so if you haven’t had a migraine yet, do not give yourself a headache worrying about it.
Jack Gladstein, MD